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Is a Bigger Amp Better?
There is almost nothing in rock and roll that is as iconic as a Marshall full stack.
It’s impossible to deny the appeal of having an amp that is bigger than you are and loud enough to shake the room.
But these days, that’s just not what most guitar players need or want! They’re looking for a more portable,
lower wattage amp that still retains all the tone of a tube stack cranked all the way up.
While designs from amp builders are all over the map, most are opting to produce lower power designs as compared to days past
and many players are embracing this “less is more” approach.
Some people may be surprised to find that the majority of the amps that Styles Music sells are rated at 30 watts or less. Still, others believe bigger means better, but in our experience that is rarely the case. In fact it may actually be the opposite depending on your application.
We’re constantly asked why this is, how it happened, and why a lower wattage combo amp is desired over a 100 watt head and a 4×12 cab?
Without attempting to tread on your inalienable right to excessive amplification, we wrote this article to address these questions.
Why a Smaller Amp?
Now, we’re going to start off getting slightly technical. We assure you that it’s necessary in order to understand the essential ingredient
in how a good amp gets its tone. Vacuum tubes, which we at Styles Music wholeheartedly believe are at the core of every great amp,
need to be pushed to a certain point before they are really at their peak performance.
Without pushing the tubes into this range,
you’re not fully getting the tonal characteristics that make tube amps desirable. Thus, the only way to make the tubes perform to their
potential is to turn the amp up. With the volume cranked, the output tubes are now running closer to what is called “full plate voltage”.
Depending on the amp circuit design and the type of tubes used, this is what gives an amp its punch, compression, dynamics, cut, warmth, thickness.
To put all of this simply, the harder it runs, the better it sounds. This is where the problem comes in… If you’re running a 100 watt head,
you’re going to be VERY LOUD. Too loud, in fact for most applications. You see, a few things have changed since the larger amps were introduced.
Back then P.A. Systems lacked the higher fidelity sound that we enjoy today. Even a relatively inexpensive PA can now reproduce passable sound quality for most smaller gigs. This makes it easier to mic up your amp for larger shows. This becomes even more of an issue at the larger venues outfitted with a fancy sound system and a sound guy who refuses to let you turn up.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see how having a large guitar amp can be a problem at times. In a lot of cases it’s almost a constant battle between trying to get the amp into the range where it sounds good and trying to keep the amp at a usable volume. We see it all the time… You’re forced to turn your 100 watt head down to 1.5, essentially killing your tone all together. So with a smaller guitar amp,
this struggle is diminished. They have this tone/volume equation more in balance than their larger counterparts.
This is not only advantageous for the at home player, but even in a live situation, many amps are just too loud by the time you really get them dialed in.
If you find this hard to believe, just ask any sound guy how often he has to ask a guitar player to turn their amp up rather than down.
Another reason small wattage amps have become more popular is their ease of use at home. With the advent of digital recording, anyone can now record at home or at a small local studio much easier than before, without disturbing the neighbors or family, making the smaller “studio” combo amps much more popular with players.
So how much power do I actually need?
One of the most confusing concepts for many players to understand is the difference between how many watts an amplifier is rated at and how much output it actually has. The problem is that we as guitar players have grown accustomed to looking at the wattage ratting of an amp when trying to determine how loud it is.
Unfortunately, watts don’t really tell the whole story. There are many factors that determine the actual physical volume of an amp. It is also imperative to understand that the scale in terms of wattage versus volume is not linear whatsoever.
For example, a 100 watt amp is nowhere near twice as loud as a 50 watt amp. In fact, depending on the type of circuit, the 50 watt amp may be the same volume or even louder in some cases.
A great example of this is if you have ever compared a solid state amp to a tube amp in terms of volume. A 50 watt tube amp is drastically louder than a 50 watt solid state amp. Again, watts do not tell the whole story, you have to consider many variables when determining how loud an amplifier actually is and also how loud you really need it to be.
Here are a few things to consider:
1) Tube vs. Solid state- As we pointed out, tube amps typically put out considerably more sound (volume) than that of a solid state amp.
Most 5 watt tube amps are actually about as loud as most 25 watt solid state amps, not to mention the obvious benefit in terms of tone.
2) Power operation “Class A vs. Class AB”- Without getting into much of the technical side of this topic (that is a whole article in itself), it is important to understand that Class A vs. Class AB is not an indication of quality whatsoever, but rather a difference in how the power section of an amplifier operates. Basically, for our purposes the thing that is important to understand is that Class A amplifiers are considerably more efficient than amplifiers that run in Class AB operation. When comparing say, an 18 watt Class A amp to a 50 watt Class AB, many would be stunned to find out that they are almost the same volume. Because of the way that amps configured to run Class A operate, they do not need as much power (watts) to produce the same volume as their Class AB counterparts.
3) Primary Use- Earlier we pointed out why you may be better off to go with a less powerful amp from a tone perspective. This is even more important when you consider that, for the vast majority of us, most of the playing that we do is at home and there are volume constraints. Even for those of us who often play gigs, most places at this point have a pretty good house system as compared to 40 years ago. Either way you are probably just fine with a considerably smaller amp than most people think they need.
For some it may be difficult to justify the fact that even though an amp is considerably less powerful, it is not much cheaper than its larger counterparts.
Naturally, one would think “less watts = less bucks”, but the reality is that there really is not much difference, from a construction perspective,
between an identical 18 watt amp and one that is 38 watts. Most of the tonal qualities of an amp come from the preamp section, which in most smaller and larger amps of the same company is absolutely identical.
The only difference between the amps is a larger transformer and a few components in the power section. Honestly, they take about the same amount of time to build and use 95% the same components. The cost from a manufactures standpoint is pretty much the same. The object of making an amp with less wattage is not to streamline production and build it cheaper, but more to optimize the output for its main application.
So in conclusion bigger is not always better! In fact for many of us the lower wattage amp will not only offer a better tone but also a much more managable volume level. Keeping your neighbors and the sound guy at your next gig happy! So the next time your in the market for a new amp don’t disregard those low wattage tube amps!
Good things do come in small packages!
Often times customers walk in to the store distraught that a string on their guitar has broke. When I pull the instrument out of the gig bag I’m never surprised but always horrified to find that the strings haven’t been changed once since they purchased the guitar. My customers will often ask how often should I change my strings? Some are surprised to learn that they need to be changed at all. If you didn’t know either, it’s perfectly normal, just like anything else guitar maintenance has to be learned over time. I wanted to take a moment today to give everyone eight signs that anyone can watch for.
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, it’s about time to get your guitar restrung.
1. Is there gunk under the strings?
Take your finger, place it between the fretboard and string, now with the soft part of your finger touching the string run your finger up and down the fretboard. does the string feel rough or coarse? The roughness you are feeling is an accumulation of rust on the string as well as dead skin cells and oils that many guitar players have come affectionately refer to as “Finger Sludge”
2. Is the fretboard clean or dirty?
Remember that “Finger Sludge” I told you about? those dead skin cells and oils will build up on the fretboard over time leading to a grayish clay looking substance that builds on the fretboard. If you just changed strings and forgot to clean the fretboard go buy a pack of strings for next time and make a note to yourself on the pack so you remember to clean the fretboard. Many companies make a lemon oil or other fretboard cleaning solution that takes finger Sludge right off, but hey, why not get the guitar restrung and let the pros at Styles Music do it for you?
3. Do the strings look splotchy or discolored?
Depending on what type of strings you have you will want to look for different colors, but one easy way to tell is by looking at places where the strings don’t get touched often. The headstock by where the strings wrap around the tuning posts as well as on the back side of the saddle are great examples. These places will show you what the string’s natural color is. If you look anywhere else and it seems darker it may be time for a change. Some strings, however, age and darken everywhere, so here is a quick guide to string colors. Acoustic strings are normally a brilliant gold color (80/20 bronze) or a honey wheat color (phosphor bronze) depending on the metals used. if the string is closer to a mocha or darker shade of brown and doesn’t look quite as shiny anymore, it’s time to get that guitar restrung Electric strings will appear silver and shiny, and will sometimes have a slight blue-ish purple tint to them (cobalt) if they loose their shine and take on more of a grey or black color it’s time to get your guitar restrung!
4. How do the strings sound?
Remember when you first put those new strings on and your guitar sounded so much brighter and alive? As a string ages, so does your tone. if your tone sounds plunky or dead, and has lost that bright pop or warm resonance that you like it may be time to get that guitar restrung.
5. Were the strings wound properly around the post?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a freshly strung guitar come in with the customer complaining that the strings won’t stay in tune. To my dismay I have to show them that the guitar was not strung properly, and without enough wraps around the post the string will continue to slip until it eventually comes loose. to avoid this make sure you have 2-3 wraps around the post on the bass side, and 3-4 wraps on the treble side, or just take it to your local shop and let the pros do it.
6. Is the guitar holding tune?
With tuning issues strings are not always the culprit, but if I’ve exhausted every other possibility, I’ll change strings, and that just might do the trick. It’s at least worth a try, and worst-case scenario you spend a few bucks and get a brand new sounding guitar. Sometimes a bad set of strings can also be the reason for intonation issues, and strange vibration patterns, but I’ll normally check every other possibility before changing strings.
7. Has it been more than a few months?
If nothing else strings will normally loose their tone after a few months. An uncoated set of strings will last anywhere between 2 and 4 months before really loosing their tone, however many musicians will change once a month, or every other month.
8. Do you need to wash your hands after playing your guitar
If when your done playing your guitar, you need to wash your hands. Because of the dirt and string sludge residue left on your fingers.
ITS TIME TO CHANGE YOUR STRINGS!
Different capacitor types do actually yield different tones. Now, this is a subject that I see a lot of debate and argument over. There are believers and non-believers so we’re going to discuss the types without getting too into the tones they provide.
The most common cap found in production line guitars is ceramic. These are small disc-shaped capacitors that are extremely cost effective and considered by most tone connoisseurs to need immediate replacement. There is nothing wrong with these capacitors, they do the job they were intended to do which is shunt high frequencies to ground. From what I’ve experienced with these cap’s is they have a bit of a grainy aspect to the highs and really have no definitive character when rolled down, they just sound kind of flat to me. Ceramic disc caps are super cheap (usually a couple of cents each) and easy to find. If you’re not too concerned with the minutiae of tone, these work just fine. If you’re picky like me, you may want to try something else.
One of the most popular capacitor upgrades I’ve seen and been asked to do for people is to install an “Orange Drop”. These are made by Sprague/Vishay and are pretty easily identified by their orange casing and rectangular shape.
The 715Pand 716P series are made from Polypropylene film and foil and have a slightly aggressive top end that I’ve heard described as “harsh” before but I prefer the term aggressive as they lend themselves well to more aggressive styles of music like rockabilly and rock and even country where a dominant top end is desired a lot of the time. I’ve also found these to have a very “clear” sound when used with hotter humbucker pickups.
Another popular capacitor for a vintage tone is paper-in-oil caps. These can be found in new manufacture from Angela Instruments (in both aluminum and copper foil), Allparts (Vitamin Q) and Luxe Repros. I love these for Tele’s and Strats. They have just the right amount of treble bleed when bypassed (tone on 10) and roll off highs smoothly with a rich sound. They’re hard to describe but I’ve found them to be the most “vintage” tonally and the most pleasing to me on single coils. Paper-in-oil capacitors tend to be on the expensive side due to not being widely manufactured. There are also lots of vintage paper-in-oil capacitors out there to be had but they command a premium price and are getting harder and harder to come by.
Polyester film capacitors are another cap upgrade I’ve used with great results. The most sought after of these being the vintage Mullard “Tropical Fish” capacitors that are getting pretty hard to track down and quite expensive. I’ve used some before and found them to be punchy and big sounding with single coils, fattening up otherwise thin sounding guitars. Some great alternatives to the vintage Mullards are the Orange Drop 225P series. Unlike the 715P and 716P series, the 225P is made from Mylar film and has a very smooth quality to it. I hear it as having a similar “fattening” quality to the Mullards but I also hear a slightly more present top end and wonderfully clear midrange with these. Another one I liked for customers looking to upgrade on the less expensive side are metalized polyester film caps that can be had fairly cheap. While they don’t sound like the Mullards or Orange Drop they do have a “fattening” quality to them with what I’ve found to be an almost “hi-fi” top end and very even mids.
Mallory capacitors are also very popular. These metalized film caps have been compared to the famous “Bumblebee” capacitors found in vintage Gibsons. I personally have not heard the vintage “Bumblebee” caps so I cannot comment on this but I’ve found the Mallory caps to be transparent and gorgeous with a “sweetness” to the sound that I cannot describe. Maybe it’s in the overtones but I just hear something in there that my ears really enjoy.
One of the most requested capacitors I had was the Sprague “Black Beauties”. These are very sought after vintage capacitors that have a warm tone Les Paul fans adore. I have never even come across them in my work but I know they can be found if you look hard enough. You will more than likely pay a premium for them but if you do have or find them, please comment below as to how you would describe them, we’d love to hear. Luxe does make a nice replica but I’ve been told they actually don’t sound quite the same.
A little quick note on vintage capacitors. As capacitors age, the materials used to make them tend to dry out and become ineffective. Some vintage capacitors were made for military use and have the internals protectively encased in other materials that keep them from drying out. The point is, as with anything you are purchasing online, do your research. Only purchase vintage capacitors from a reputable seller that specializes in them. You might pay more than from the guy on eBay with the colorful auction, but you’ll be guaranteed a quality product that hasn’t dried up and gone past its useful specifications.
With all this being stated, experimenting with different values and type’s of capacitors. Is a relatively inexpensive and easy way to customize your guitar tone. A basic rule for tone caps is that the bigger the cap value, the darker the tone. Depending on the cap’s value (capacitance), the effect can reach from “slightly warmer” to a “woman tone” all the way to “completely dark and clinically dead.” Remember, the tone cap is always part of the guitar circuit and it even influences the tone when the tone pot is fully opened.
How to Choose the Correct Signal Chain Order for Your Effects Pedals
So you’ve came into the store and bought some great pedals. Now the next question is “what order do I put them in? This is a very valid question, especially when there are a lot of pedals in use. Many people, even several pros we’ve dealt with, are surprised by the importance of proper pedal board signal flow. Improper arrangement of pedals can make even the most impressive pedalboard your worst enemy. Naturally, pedals react quite differently according to what input is being fed into them
Try this common order first:
- Dynamic Range – Compression
- EQ – Wah Pedal, Equalizer
- Drive – Overdrive, Distortion, Fuzz
- Modulation – Phaser, Flanger, Chorus
- Time-Based – Reverb, Delay
Each pedal imparts its own coloring to the audio signal. This order goes from least alteration of the signal to the most and minimizes the chance that the effects introduced at each point in the signal path cancel the previous ones out.
If you have a compression pedal this should be first in your default signal chain order. Compression automatically “rides the gain” by pumping up volume when levels are low and cutting it when levels peak too high. The behavior of the rest of your effects chain becomes much more predictable by receiving this more uniform and consistent audio signal.
If you have an EQ type effect it is most likely a Wah pedal, which creates its distinctive effect by sweeping a narrow frequency range up and down as you move the pedal. Placing the wah pedal next in this suggested default order enables it to benefit from the consistent audio signal coming from the compressor and it yields a more open vintage sound. In addition its output is more predictably colored by other effects down stream in the signal path such as gain and modulation.
Drive pedals emulate the saturated gain sound of a tube amp turned up to 11 by clipping the audio signal. Since this effect adds lots of gain to your signal it works best in this next position as we’re still dealing with a clean signal from the compressor and wah pedal; thus you avoid boosting unwanted noise.
Modulation type pedals operate by splitting off a portion of the signal and applying slight delays and or altering the pitch of the incoming signal before mixing it back together with the unprocessed portion. This signal treatment increases the likelihood of cancellation effects if modulation is placed earlier in the signal path.
Time-based effects are last in this suggested default order because they repeat the original signal without alteration. This treatment earlier in the signal path will conflict with other effects that alter the waveform if they were later in the signal chain giving you unpredictable results.
Now that I’ve laid out the “rules” I can move to the inevitable exceptions.
- If you have a Fuzz Face pedal you will need to plug your guitar into it directly. I learned this the hard way. It goes nuts if you have anything other than the guitar in front of it.
- Try the wah pedal just after drive pedals for a thicker sound.
- While modulation effects generally go after drive try placing phaser effects in front of your overdrive and distortion pedals.
Be sure to balance the volume across the signal chain (ensure the same volume when an effect is on or bypassed). Lastly, don’t forget the most important effects; your guitar volume, pickup selector, and the type of guitar pick you use. Since these are the very beginning of the signal chain they have the largest impact on your tone.
Please keep in mind that pedal order can be a subjective thing and largely based on opinion, especially since tastes can differ and change. There are a few rules to pedal order, but we still encourage anybody that reads this to experiment with your own sounds and arrangement and not to be worried about a “wrong” order. There are a lot of different and interesting sounds to be had by changing the order of pedals.
While many 1/4″ instrument and 1/4″ speaker cables look almost identical from the outside, under the hood they’re nothing alike. Don’t let the similar size, black jacket, and 1/4″ connectors fool you. Take care in looking at your cable to verify what it was made for and that you’re using it for the proper application. Cables will often say whether they are “instrument” or “speaker” cables in small white lettering along the jacket. Speaker cables are often slightly thicker in diameter than instrument cables. And if you really want to make sure you can unscrew the 1/4″ connector barrel and double check for yourself. The below picture shows the differences you’ll see between the two at the solder points to the connector:
Last week I walked into a friends jam session to hang out and listen. He was showing me his boutique amplifier and some of his guitars. When he plugged his guitar in there was a terrible buzz & hum coming from his rig! We were both caught by surprise and immediately started started troubleshooting some of the common causes, such as bad connector or an A/C power source radiating too much EMI near by. I unscrewed one of the 1/4″ connectors on his “guitar”cable to see if we had a loose solder joint but instead found he was using a speaker cable. Unscrewing the 1/4″ barrel relieved a twisted pair of conductors with no shield (typical of a speaker cable), rather than once center conductor and shield you’d find on an instrument/ Guitar cable. We quickly swapped out the cable with a proper instrument cable, and walla, beautiful tone with no noise!
This incident let me to think, using the proper type of 1/4” cable whether it be for an instrument or speaker run is incredibly important and often doesn’t get the weight and attention it deserves while troubleshooting problems. In this blog we’ll discuss why you should only use a speaker cable between the power amp and a speaker and instrument cable for instruments.
A quick background in cable anatomy:
Instrument Cable are made of a single small gauge center conductor (usually copper) then surrounded by an insulator. The insulator is covered by a braided or foil shield (used as a second conductor) which is then encased in a rubber or plastic outer jacket. The picture below gives you a visual representation of this:
Speaker Cables are made of two conductors (usually twisted together) of a higher gauge conductor (10awg to 18awg) than instrument cable. Each of these conductors has its own thin insulating jacket. This twisted pair of conductors is then encased in a rubber or plastic outer jacket. See example below:
Why they’re not interchangeable:
You shouldn’t plug your instrument/guitar into it’s amp using a speaker cable because guitars, specifically passive guitars, send out a very low level signal. This low level signal is very susceptible to noise induced from RFI/EMI from cell phone and radio towers, dimmers and florescent lights, electrical transformers, and other sources that are always around you. The shield around an instrument cable keeps most of these interferences from getting into your guitar signal. Because a speaker cable doesn’t have this shield, if you use it to plug your guitar in, you’ll generally get a lot of noise in the signal due to induced interference. You’re not going to hurt anything by using a speaker cable as an instrument cable, but you’re likely not going to get a noise free sound either.
You shouldn’t plug your speakers into your amplifier using an instrument cable because instrument cables don’t have low enough resistance to let speaker level voltages flow with ease. Essentially the amp would be trying to send all of its power down a small center conductor and a thin braided or foil shield! At low volumes you’ll likely not have any problems, but in the event you have a powerful amp and turn the volume up, you’ll likely hear slight distortion of the signal, the amp will have to work much harder and have less power to drive the speaker, and in some cases, could even start heating up the instrument cable to the point that it melts the jacket and creates an electrical short circuit! This could of course ruin your amplifier and/or your loudspeaker.
I hope this post was able to shed a little light onto what whats going on below the outside jackets of two very similar looking cables. If you have any further questions or comments on this topic, or have another issue you’d like to see us cover, please leave us a comment below!
Ask any guitarist what features influence their decision-making when buying a guitar and from most you’ll get the same response: wood, pickups, neck profile, fretboard radius, action, body shape and color. Apart from color, all of the above affect playability and tone, which should be the key criteria on which any buying decision is made. However, you rarely hear a guitar player mention scale length, and scale length has a significant impact on both playability and tone.
Scale length tends to be thought of as the distance from the nut to the bridge saddles – string length. But since nearly all electric guitars have adjustable saddles and acoustic guitars have a compensated bridge saddle enabling each string to vary in length and be intonated correctly, scale length is more accurately calculated as twice the distance from the inside edge of the nut to the middle of the 12th fret.
On a guitar, strings length is compensated to achieve good intonation, which means that string length is adjusted through saddle positioning, to allow for the fact that a string is stretched slightly sharp when fretting. Different string gauges require different levels of saddle adjustment. Hence, on an electric guitar the position of individual saddles will vary, some will be set further away from the neck than others, while on an acoustic guitar a single saddle piece will be set at an angle.
The two most common scale lengths for electric guitars are 24¾ inch, found on many Gibson-style guitars, such as the Les Paul, and the longer 25½ inch, found on many Fender-style guitars, such as the Telecaster, Stratocaster and Jazzmaster models. The scale length used by Gibson has caused some confusion. Some people refer to it as 24¾ inch, while others define it as 24⅝ inch. Confusion exists for two reasons. Firstly, Gibson’s scale length has varied over the years. In 1954 it was 24 ¾, in 1959 24 9/16, in 1969 245/8, and 1992 249/16. Les Pauls are currently advertised as having a 24¾ inch scale length. Secondly, Gibson uses compensated string length to define scale length, while most other manufacturers, including Fender, give the uncompensated scale length. Once a Les Paul has been setup correctly, the length of the low E string from the nut to the bridge saddle will be 24¾ inch if fitted with Gibson’s recommended string gauge, but it’s uncompensated measurement from the nut to the 12th fret will be closer to 245/8 or 249/16, depending on year of manufacture. Compensated measurement seems a strange way to define scale length. Because all the strings on a guitar have a different thickness and different players prefer different string gauges, compensated scale length will vary across all the strings on a guitar and from player to player, depending on the guitarists string gauge preference.
When selecting a guitar, scale length should be a key consideration. Woods, thickness, body shape, type of neck joint, pickups, and electronics all have their part to play in influencing tone, but scale length defines the source harmonic content with which all other components interact.
The 25½ inch scale length is renowned for producing a rich, strong, bell-like tone with a well-defined bottom end. It is the longest scale length commonly used for electric guitars. It offers more sparkle, shimmer and brightness than shorter scale lengths. Fender’s Telecaster, Stratocaster and Jazzmaster models tend to be fitted with single-coil pickups to accentuate these factors. On a 25½ inch scale guitar, the spacing between frets is longer when compared with shorter-scale guitars. Fret for fret, notes resonate on a longer string length. Bass notes are firm, clear and bold.
The harmonics on a 24¾ inch scale guitar are more densely packed than on guitars with a longer scale, which leads to a thicker, warmer tone overall. You just don’t get the same creamy tone out of a 25½ inch scale guitar that you get from one with a shorter scale.
To be tuned correctly, strings fitted to a guitar with a 25½ inch scale length have to be placed under more tension than strings on a shorter-scale guitar. Strings on longer-scale guitars will feel tighter and firmer than those fitted to one with a short scale. This affects playability. Because the strings on a shorter-scale are under less tension, they are easier to bend and fret. The wider fret spacing on longer-scale guitars also means that, depending on the size of your hands, they can be a little more difficult to play than those with a shorter scale. Fingers have to stretch further.
No matter what components you fit to a 25½ inch scale guitar, you’ll never get it to sound or play the same as a guitar with a shorter scale, and vice versa. Scale length is just so fundamental to the tone and playability of a guitar.